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Cancer is a complex disease. There are many different types of cancers, as well as many potential causes. Although we still don’t know all the answers, what is known is that a variety of factors can contribute to the development of cancer.

Genetic makeup and family history play a role. But external factors that you may have some have control over — like your lifestyle habits — have an even bigger impact. In fact, research shows that 80 to 90 percent of malignant tumors are related to external factors.

One of the most important lifestyle factors to consider is your diet. That’s because a large body of research has shown that some foods are associated with a higher risk of certain types of cancer.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at specific foods and beverages that may increase your risk of cancer, and what the scientific evidence has to say about the link between these foods and the risk of cancer.

Some foods can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity, which are associated with certain types of cancer. Other foods contain carcinogens, which are harmful substances that have the capacity to cause cancer.

It’s worth noting that exposure to carcinogens doesn’t always cause cancer, though. It depends on your genetics, as well as the level and duration of exposure to the carcinogen.

With this in mind, let’s dig into what research has discovered about which foods may increase your risk of different types of cancer.

Processed meat is any type of meat that’s been preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or canning. Most processed meats are red meats. Some examples of red meat that’s been processed include:

The methods used to make processed meats can create carcinogens. For example, according to a 2018 article, curing meat with nitrite can form carcinogens called N-nitroso compounds. Smoking meat can also lead to carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

According to a 2019 review, processed meat is a major risk factor for colorectal cancer. A different 2019 review also found that it’s linked with stomach cancer.

In a 2018 review, researchers determined that a high consumption of processed meat was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

When starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, a compound called acrylamide is formed. This can happen during frying, baking, roasting, and toasting.

Fried starchy foods are especially high in acrylamide. This includes fried potato products, like french fries and potato chips.

According to a 2018 review, acrylamide was found to be carcinogenic in studies done on rats. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers it “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

According to a 2020 study, acrylamide damages DNA and induces apoptosis, or cell death.

Eating a lot of fried food also increases your risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity. These conditions can promote oxidative stress and inflammation, further increasing your cancer risk.

Overcooking foods, especially meats, can produce carcinogens. According to one 2020 article, cooking meat with high heat creates carcinogenic PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These substances may increase the risk of cancer by altering the DNA of your cells.

You’re more likely to overcook foods when you cook with high temperatures or over an open flame. This includes cooking methods like:

  • grilling
  • barbecuing
  • pan-frying

The Food and Drug Administration also states that overcooking starchy foods, like potatoes, increases acrylamide formation.

To reduce your risk of carcinogens from high-heat cooking, try using healthier cooking methods such as:

  • poaching
  • pressure cooking
  • baking or roasting at lower temperatures
  • slow cooking in a crock pot or slow cooker

There’s some evidence that dairy may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Dairy foods include products like:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • yogurt

According to a 2020 review, eating dairy increases levels of an insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This is associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer. IGF-1 may increase the proliferation, or production, of prostate cancer cells.

However, the evidence for this is not consistent. In addition, the type of dairy may play a role, according to a 2016 study.

Sugary foods and refined carbs can indirectly increase your risk for cancer. Some examples of these foods include:

  • sugar-sweetened beverages
  • baked goods
  • white pasta
  • white bread
  • white rice
  • sugary cereals

Eating a high concentration of sugary, starchy foods may put you at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity. According to a 2020 study, both conditions promote inflammation and oxidative stress. This may increase your risk for certain types of cancer.

According to a 2019 review, type 2 diabetes increases the risk for ovarian, breast, and endometrial (uterine) cancer.

A high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates may also lead to high blood glucose levels, which according to a 2017 study, may be a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

To limit the health effects of refined carbohydrates, try to swap these foods with healthier alternatives such as:

  • whole grain bread
  • whole grain pasta
  • brown rice
  • oats

When you consume alcohol, your liver breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a carcinogenic compound.

According to a 2017 review, acetaldehyde promotes DNA damage and oxidative stress. It also interferes with your immune function, making it difficult for your body to target precancerous and cancerous cells.

In women, alcohol increases levels of estrogen in the body, according to a 2015 study. This is linked with a higher risk for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

According to scientific research, some foods contain beneficial compounds that may help reduce the risk of cancer. This includes foods like:

  • Fruits and vegetables. According to a 2017 review, fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. These compounds can help protect your cells from oxidative stress and DNA damage.
  • Nuts. A 2023 review found that nuts may help reduce inflammation and cancer risk.
  • Beans. Beans are rich in fiber. According to a 2023 study, fiber may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Whole grains. Whole grains are associated with a lower risk of cancer, according to a 2020 review. Whole grains, like quinoa and brown rice, are rich in fiber and antioxidants.
  • Fish. Fish offers healthy fats called omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats from fish may lower the risk of some cancers by reducing inflammation, according to a 2019 study on breast cancer and a 2022 study on colorectal cancer. However, according to a 2020 meta-analysis there is only weak evidence linking omega-3’s to cancer prevention.
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Processed meat, overcooked foods, and fried foods may increase your risk of some types of cancer. That’s because these foods may contain carcinogens, or compounds that cause cancer.

Alcohol produces carcinogens when it’s metabolized by your body. Dairy, sugar, and refined carbs may also raise the risk of some types of cancer.

To reduce your risk for cancer, try to limit the consumption of these foods, and focus on healthy lifestyle habits. This includes eating more foods that may lower your cancer risk, getting regular exercise, and finding ways to reduce your stress.